Addressing the Gender Pay Gap in the Middle East

Solving gender disparity in the Middle East remains a challenge, and there are many factors that may deter real progress in effectively closing the pay gap. However, effective measures can be put in place to significantly contribute to this goal and allow for a fairer distribution of pay.
Celine Chami
Sep 06, 2022

This article is available in Arabic.

If we look at the gender pay gap in the Middle East, at the current rate of change it will take the region 115 years to close, compared to the global period of 267.6 years, according to the World Economic Forum.

This at first glance seems like a promising and progressive number in comparison. But looking more deeply into it reveals a completely different interpretation of the situation. In fact, while women who are highly educated are in well-paid jobs, the reality is that fewer women are active in the Middle East workplace compared to their male counterparts, which explains the overall lower gap.

The situation is, however, not the same in all Middle Eastern countries, and some are showing real progress on this front.

In the United Arab Emirates for instance, and according to a report by the Emirates News Agency, the Labour Law states that “female employees shall receive wages equal to that of males if they perform the same work or another of equal value.” The Decree of Federal Law stipulating equal wages for women and men in the private sector came into force in September 2020.

In Saudi Arabia, where the gap ranged between 39% and 48% in 2021, the country is actively working towards a significant decrease to comply with its 2030 vision, according to the Independent Arabia news website.

Moreover, the two countries have lately made pay discrimination illegal.

In recent years, Qatar had a gender pay gap of approximately 18%, according to a study conducted in 2021.

In spite of these promising statistics, solving gender disparity in the region remains a challenge, and there are many factors that may deter real progress in effectively closing the pay gap.

Lower participation in the workforce

A study conducted by McKinsey & Company in 2020 reveals that women’s labour force participation rates in the Middle East are the lowest in the world at 24.6%.

According to data by the World Bank, the most recent rate dated 2021 was at 19%, with Qatar topping the charts with a rate of 57%, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait at 47%, and Bahrain at 42%.

This however, is set to change to meet most countries’ 2030 vision, where women’s participation in the workforce is expected to double, especially in productive jobs in the fields of technology and entrepreneurship.

Work-life balance disparity

When it comes to parenthood roles, women are generally expected to step out of the workplace to take care of the children and accommodate their needs, as opposed to men who are expected to keep providing the financial means to support the family.

In the light of endeavours to resolve the gender pay gap, this is detrimental as it creates a setback for the efforts to include more women in the workplace.

The COVID-19 aftermath

Women have significantly suffered more layoffs, unpaid leave and salary cuts during the pandemic than their male counterparts. According to a report by the International Labour Organization, between 2019 and 2020 women’s employment declined by 4.1 per cent in Arab states compared to men’s decline of 1.8 per cent. The report equally states that in these countries, despite favourable prospects for women’s employment in 2021, women continue to be five times less likely to be in employment than men.

This is also due to the fact that female distribution among different sectors is far from equal, and the sectors where women are well represented have been the most hit by the pandemic.

Closing the pay gap: effective steps

Closing the pay gap will not be an overnight task; it is a long-term process that requires solid contribution from companies in both the private and public sectors. Effective measures can be put in place to significantly contribute to this goal and allow for a fairer distribution of pay.

Employing more women in leadership roles

When companies start recognising high-potential individuals irrespective of their gender, women will have more chances for taking leadership roles, even in male-dominant workplaces. This is essential to advance women and to set role models for other women to follow, hence increasing overall female participation in the workplace.

Conducting regular pay audits

Salary talks are still considered a taboo subject in many companies, especially in the Middle East. So the introduction of regular pay audits will allow Human Resources to effectively address disparities and ensure employees in similar jobs are paid equally, regardless of other factors.

Creating an adapted workplace for women

Despite progressing on many fronts, Arab countries still bear the stamp of women’s dominant place in the household, as opposed to their role in the workplace. Accordingly, it is not up to women to adapt to the workplace, or to accept lesser pay because of their perceived primary role, but for the workplace to adapt to women’s needs in terms of the different roles they hold.

Offering proper maternity leave – as well as proper paternity leave, flexible working hours, help in childcare and support within the work-life balance – are all necessary, as they allow women to better juggle the different aspects of their lives without having to compromise on their work performance.

Rewarding employees based on performance

The gender pay gap is more often caused by a reward system that is based on the number of years of experience or hours spent at work than on performance.

When companies look at rewarding employees based on deliverables and the quality of work, rather than on the hours spent performing a task, they might often discover that rendering quality work is more performance-based than time-based.

Accordingly, the correlation between time and quality will cease to exist and will be replaced by that of performance, skills and know-how, and how these three factors are the real influencers of quality.

When companies begin to implement some, if not all, of these measures, closing the pay gap will no longer seem like an unattainable goal that might take more than a hundred years to achieve. It will become a possible reality that encourages women to play an even more active role in the workplace.

Celine Chami

Marketing and communications consultant

Celine is a brand expert and university lecturer with over 20 years of experience. As well as working and training hundreds of companies in the MEA region, she is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Human Resources.